‘Music As Seeing/Feeling’
Composer Gity Razaz started playing piano at age 7, started writing music when she was 9—”I didn’t even know what composition was at that age”—and moved with her mother to the States from Tehran when she was 15.
With her mother drawn to Houston by a chance to work in research at Baylor University’s Texas Children’s Hospital, Razaz would go on to take both a bachelor’s and masters’ degree in composition at Juilliard.
And on April 1, Razaz’s The Metamorphosis of Narcissus will be part of the American Composers Orchestra’s “Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind” concert at Carnegie Hall conducted by George Manahan in Zankel Hall.
Now turning 30, Razaz has a youngster’s voice and an ancient soul. She’s one of four artists-in-residence with Paola Prestini’s National Sawdust—where her 35-minute song cycle, The Call Across the Valley of Not-Knowing, was premiered last month. Her music has the studied challenges of work by Darius Milhaud and the impressionist exhilaration of Debussy.
And for all the lush, immersive sonic color that her audiences love in her work, her voice is all her own, not the outcome of a musical upbringing. Hit “play” and let the gaze of her Narcissus embrace you as you read.
‘The Emotional Map That Creates Drama’
Thought Catalog: You’re not the product of a musical family, right? They’re all physicians, you’ve told me.
Gity Razaz: My training has always been in Western classical music. I never trained in traditional Persian music. But I come from a very non-musical family. Everybody in my family is a physician. I was at a party when I was very young, and someone was playing the piano. I was mesmerized. And here I am, composing for life.
TC: And as prolific as you are [here’s a listing of Razaz’s work to date], having this much work in place hasn’t been part of some grand plan or expectation on your part, right?
GR: When I started, I didn’t do it to show off. I didn’t do composing because I thought it was cool. I just did it. My resources were very limited when I was in Iran. Whatever I knew of classical music was what I could play on the piano. It wasn’t until I came here that I wrote something for the violin because I would just compose for myself on the piano.
TC: If that was a relatively isolated start, you’re now working a lot in collaboration?
GR: I love working, and I try to stay connected to other artists. I’m just starting a collaboration with a choreographer. We’ve been working on various projects for four or five years now, and we’re working together on at 50-minute ballet for a Russian company, the Moscow Theater Ballet. I work a lot with cellists, too [including Jeffrey Ziegler, whose solo album includes Razaz’s Shadow Lines for solo cello].
TC: Can you describe in words what your music sounds like to you?
GR: Well, in order for me to answer that question, you’re going to hear some touchy-feely things.
TC: That’s fine. [Laughs.]
GR: It’s kind of like seeing and feeling at the same time. When I hear my music, I see/feel it. I can give you an example.
The song cycle I just did at National Sawdust is based on poems by Galway Kinnell. He’s passed away now but I think he’s one of the geniuses of our time and I love his poetry. The thing that made me connect so well to his words is that you can see whatever he’s describing. You kind of go into that world and see whatever’s happening around you. His voice took me to the place he’s describing.
And that’s how I connect to my art: it’s like seeing/feeling when you hear the music. You experience an emotion, a feeling, with all of your senses. And that’s what’s beautiful about it, you’re completely absorbed, you’re in this other world and everything you hear is this one thing.
TC: I hear your work as a form of surround-sound, there’s no escape. As a listener, there’s no other place I could be when I’m hearing it. Talk to me about The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. This is from the Dali painting.
GR: Yes, I’m using Salvador Dali’s painting with the same name, from the double imagery Dali was so fascinated with. When you look at the painting, you see him using the same image but creating two entirely different worlds using the same outline, basically.
On the left side you see Narcissus with his head on his knee [fixated on his reflection in the water] and on the right, it’s the result of that self-obsession…he’s come back as the flower.
That was the inspiration for the piece but I knew the story. It’s been used so much and can be applied to so many things. I think I was 14 when I read The Alchemist by Paolo Coehlo, and it’s the same thing, he’s describing the story of Narcissus as seen from the point of view of the lake. While Narcissus is falling in love with his own image in the lake, the lake is falling in love with its own image in Narcissus’ eyes. [Laughs.] I just love that, so beautiful. That stuck with me.
TC: Is there a narrative to the piece, a story line?
GR: It’s not programmatic in the basic sense, but I’m very much concerned with drama. That’s my starting point, drama and the emotional ups and downs, the emotional map that creates that drama.
And The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is basically the emotional map, the emotional journey [of Narcissus’ self-love] and dying, and then whatever comes after that. Rebirth. The aftermath. So this is an emotional response to the story, rather than a narrative of what happened.
TC: Does this kind of composition come to you quickly?
GR: I have some formulas, ways to get myself in the zone, but the result of where I end up can be very different. Emotionally, the trajectory of the piece was very clear to me. The first part of the piece happened very quickly.
But the ending was more difficult. What kind of an ending is that, to come back to life [but as a flower, the narcissus]. What kind of a life is that? Is it a painful one because you’ve lost yourself in an image? Or is it enlightenment?
TC: Have you thought of film work? Your music seems so close to good film scoring.
GR: I’ve thought about it and people have said this before because my work is visual. But from what I’ve experienced in terms of dealing with the visual world, my work has been mostly with choreographers. We talk about the emotional plot and then add characters in it.
In collaborating with visual people, I think I’d really enjoy working in film. But that’s not my goal.
TC: And your goal is?
GR: I want my music to be heard. I want it to travel. And I want to work with the best opera in the best opera houses, with the best orchestras. [Laughs.]
I’m like a child now, telling you my biggest dreams.